Spanish supermarkets treat their customers like dirt. I realise very well that supermarkets are not supposed to be our friends, that they are there to grow fat off the sweat of our brows, and that the more often we can be coaxed inside of the doors of our favourite retailer and the more moolah we can be conned into spending while virtually trapped inside a store’s labyrinthine aisles, all the better for what are essentially heartless corporate greed machines. But at least in other parts of the world supermarkets assume the pretence of being nice, warm, caring and cuddly. Here in Spain the big chains do not stand on such ceremony — the only thing trod upon is the dignity of the shopper.
To begin with, I am not a shoplifter. Never in my life have I taken an item from a shelf and sauntered out the door of a shop without first having paid for it. Even as a university student, during my wildest, most rebellious phase (and which also happened to coincide with my poorest, hungriest phase) I never stole so much as a lentil from a supermarket, not even when I was down to my last red cent and the aroma wafting from the deli counter was tickling and tantalising my poor, starved olfactory bulb. But, for all my unblemished record on the petty theft front, I might as well be the evil cloned somatic hybrid of Great Train Robber, Ronnie Briggs and Billy the Kid: as soon as I step through the door of a supermarket here in Spain I am treated as little better than a potential thief.
At the entrance to every Spanish supermarket is a goon (if use of this term implies a lack of respect for the “security professional” in question, then I have achieved my desired effect!) whose job it is to eyeball in as suspicious and unwelcoming a manner as possible anyone venturing on to the premises. There is no “Good day” issued from the mouth of the goon, no “How’s the family?” or “Isn’t it lovely weather we’re having”. There is just hostile scrutiny. You can almost hear the gears of the goonish mind grind as it goes through its hard-wired door security protocol.
Is customer on list of Madrid’s ten most wanted light-fingered shoppers?
Does raincoat appear to possess Inspector Gadget-like bottomless pockets and secret compartments?
Is false leg hollow?
How many melons could be stashed under that trilby?
Is customer carrying a shopping bag?
Yes! There are goons on the doors of Spanish supermarkets on the lookout for customers entering with shopping bags! I kid you not! You see, if you go into a supermarket with a shopping bag (either from another store you have just visited or your own dedicated shopping bag) then you are doing so with the clear intention of pilfering, using the said bag as repository for items for which you have no intention of paying. There is no way that you just happened to pass another shop on your way to the supermarket and on a whim decided to purchase a shirt or a pair of shoes or bag of nails or whatever. It is out of the question that you might be an eco-friendly type and believe in placing your purchases in a strong-seamed hemp bag rather than one of the reusable, or worse, disposable plastic variety. Your carrying of a shopping bag into the supermarket is premeditated and ill-intentioned: the bag is as deliberate a ruse as a certain wooden horse of Trojan fame and, no less than the Greeks, if you are permitted a dawdle around the store with the bag, there will be dire consequences for the locale’s unwary inhabitants (in this case the store manager and her staff).
So, for the unwary customer entering a supermarket carrying a shopping bag, the procedure goes something like this: you cross what amounts to the store’s threshold — that unfriendly line of sod-you electronic article surveillance thingies; you slow down, perhaps come to a stop, take a gander at the fresh flowers or the weekly specials, decide whether to take a trolley or a basket; you’re just about to move off again when . . . boom — it’s the goon.
“You can’t bring that in here,” he says (for it is always a he — the female security guard in Spain is about as rare a breed as the female trucker).
He then offers you two options: there is a bank of lockers just inside the entrance where you can, for the princely deposit of one euro, temporarily leave items purchased off-site or offending shopping bags; and there is the option of placing your goods in a huge, A2-sized transparent plastic bag, which is then heat-sealed, thus rendering innocuous your formerly high-security-risk hemp satchel.
If you get stroppy or bolshie (as I did on one or two occasions when I was a greenhorn here in Spain) and refuse to part with your bag, the goon will ask you to leave the store. Depending on how high your levels of idealism vs pragmatism happen to be riding that day, you might be happy to make a stand against supermarkets treating their customers like something they stepped on in that section of the park where canines are allowed to poop, but if you’ve run out of milk, and your tongue is hanging out for want of a cup of tea then you capitulate and goonism wins another small skirmish in its unstoppable march forward.
I loathe plastic bags and the waste of resources and environmental vandalism they represent, a fact that sends me reaching for my wallet, scrabbling for a euro and gingerly placing my shopping bag and off-store purchased goods in a locker. If I’m with my kids, their combined pester power usually defeats my eco-activism, and the pair get to work with the heat sealer. They love operating the sealer, so much that I’m thinking of getting them one for Christmas! (As an aside, it is curious that a gizmo capable of inflicting second-degree burns if operated incorrectly is available for use in a supermarket by members of the public — men, women, children, those old people who appear so feeble and infirm that they look in need of a defibrillator and not a heat sealer. Unsupervised by staff. Un-stickered by safety warnings. Does the fact that this wouldn’t happen in the US or Ireland or Britain say more about Spain’s lax approach to health and safety or the culture of litigation that is endemic in the English-speaking world? Imagine a supermarket in Ireland’s public liability insurance if they provided heat sealers for all-comers! There would be certain people making a living out of burning themselves and subsequently suing supermarkets for negligence.)
The goon at the door, the lockers, the heat sealers — it’s all ridiculous. In the face of every measure developed over the last few decades to counter shoplifting (security tags, cameras, mirrors, store layout) thieving has continued. The light-fingered will always be among us, as will those who derive a perverse pleasure in besting whatever technology throws at them — just take a look at the shoplifting tips available on YouTube. And to think that banning shopping bags or off-store purchases might prevent robbing: a shoplifter can just as easily slip a packet of razor blades (always among the top ten everyday items stolen due to their high price-to-size ratio) into his or her pocket as into a bag. What’s more, the goons at the door do not oblige women to heat-seal their handbags (or the metrosexual his manbag!), and as far as I understand it, a hell of a lot can be stashed away in a handbag without arousing suspicion.
So there we have it — a disrespectful, belligerent policy that not only irks many of a retailer’s customers, but is also at best tokenistic and at worst completely useless in terms of preventing losses due to shoplifting. But multiple after multiple continues to pursue what amounts to hassling and harrying the very people whose money keeps them afloat. In a way it is us customers who must share some of the blame for the manner in which the supermarkets at which we shop treat us. If we decided we didn’t want to put up with the bully-boy tactics anymore and moved our business to shops that treated us with more decorum? (There do exist a handful of stores like this). If we complained to management, wrote to newspapers, started Facebook campaigns?
But Spain is not a rich country, and since the crisis broke it has not been enjoying the best of times. People are shopping based on price, and since the large chain stores have the lowest prices, it is to the likes of Alcampo, Eroski, Ahorramás and Día that people are flocking. It may or may not be a coincidence that as well as having the lowest prices, the aforementioned are among those who treat their customers with the most contempt. The high-end retailers — where service, quality and the range of goods on offer is more important than price — tend to be located in the richer pockets of the country’s big cities, and in these shops there is a remarkable absence of goons. So we have the hoi polloi getting ogled by bug-eyed security guards in the poor side of town, while the rich shop to the strains of Mozart and the whiff of freshly-baked bread. It’s a case once more of let the ordinary folk eat cake.